Everywhere … But Not out of Nowhere

The Philosophical Foundations of Wokeism

All of the craziness and chaos of recent years might seem to have come out of nowhere, but there are clear lines of influence from various modern and postmodern philosophers. More than that, there is a clear agenda that only makes sense when the bigger philosophical issues are understood. At a recent gathering of the Acton Institute, Bishop Robert Barron explained the philosophical roots of Wokeism. Bp Barron is a bestselling author, scholar, and popular speaker. He is the founder of Word on Fire ministries and has served in several academic posts.

Wokeism Has a History

“I want to talk to you about Wokeism,” he began, “not because I like it but because I hate it.” Wokeism is everywhere. We need to stand against it in a sophisticated way. It did not start in the summer of 2020.”

So what is “Wokeism”?

Wokeism is a popularization of critical theory, says Bp Barron. Critical Theory (CT) originated in French and German academies of the early 20th century. Some of the main influences in this movement include German Frankfurt School thinkers (Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse) and French theorists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. These intellectual and cultural influences came to America when the Nazis forced the closure of the Frankfurt School’s Institute, and many of these intellectuals were hired by American universities. Derrida became popular in American literature departments beginning in the 60s and 70s, with his theory of “deconstruction.” These ideas then gestated and broke out like a disease into the broader culture.

Bp. Barron explained how Catholic social theory (and I would add, classical orthodox Christianity) is diametrically opposed to Wokeism. Barron identifies four main philosophical roots of Wokeism:

  1. A radicalized modern self
  2. The relativization of the truth
  3. A fundamentally antagonistic social theory
  4. A play of Substructure and Superstructure

Radicalization of the Modern Sense of the Self

René Descartes and Immanuel Kant are the main figures in the birth of modern philosophy. In his search for philosophical truth, Descartes famously said, Cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”)—although he could doubt everything else, he could not doubt his own thinking and his own rational capacity. This, says Barron, “compels the objective to come before the bar of the subjective for adjudication.” It also leads to a “radical division between the body and the soul,” and this becomes a central part of modern anthropology, our understanding of what people are.

Immanuel Kant concluded, then, that rather than living within a given reality, we project reality out into the world. According to Kant’s moral theory, the only thing that is good without qualification is our own good will. The emphasis here is on the quality of our own moral intentions. 

Relativization of Truth

CT is skeptical of all truth claims—except its own. This can be seen in Frederich Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, where everything depends on our individual perspective. In effect, this aims to “Pull back the curtain of truth claims to reveal the power plays” behind all claims to truth. For CT, all truth claims are a form of oppression, as one group (such as men) try to dominate another (like women). In essence, the oppressors seek to force their reality, or “truth,” on the oppressed. So, CT tries to uncover the motives of power and dominance behind claims to “truth.” This is a theme in every manifestation of Wokeism.

This is clearly seen in the work of Jacques Derrida, whom Barron calls the “patron saint” of CT. Derrida was a French literary critic whose texts are, as Barron put it, “famously unreadable” but still “function as a ‘scripture’ for postmodernism.” Derrida claims that we always impose our own understanding onto a text, so that there is no real “truth” in it. In effect, he “deconstructs” the “logo-centric” approach to truth. This stands in direct opposition to the classical Christian tradition, where there is objective truth—logos—and our minds can connect with ultimate reality.

For Derrida, there is no meaning to a given text, but rather, meaning is always deferred in the “ultimate play of the text.” Everything is open-ended. There is no place to stand. All we have is an endless play of perspectives and points of view. This is now the default position in our culture today.

Bp. Barron points out that the Woke position here is “comically absurd.” They are claiming to tell us the truth about the impossibility of finding the truth. Woke theorists have gone further than Derrida and now claim that basic mathematical and scientific truths are an expression of “white supremacy.”

Fundamentally Antagonistic Social Theory

CT relies on a social theory created by Karl Marx. Marx took Hegel’s categories of “master and slave,” and applied them to class antagonism. For Marx, history is the endless play—and conflict—between different social groups. Marx’s philosophy was focused on bringing about a class revolution. CT has taken this framework and applied it to countless types of “oppressions”: racial, sexual, gender, colonial, and now, whoever runs afoul of the Woke lynch mob next.

Derrida’s influence also shows up here. Derrida believed there are basic “binaries” in our language, such as male/female, straight/queer, white/black. For CT, binary opposites reflect oppressor/oppressed relationships. Marxist strategists aim to speak up for the “oppressed” groups. Barron notes that CT theorists never allow a third option. We are either on the side of the “oppressed” or the “oppressors.”

Play of Substructure and Superstructure

Barron was particularly struck by how often Marxist themes manifested in the summer of 2020. Because Marx was a radical reductionist, “everything comes down to economic struggle.” This is the substructure. A superstructure develops around the substructure, to “defend” it. For a Marxist, the basic point of all wars and all politics is preservation of the substructure. Barron humorously remarked that he is a “drug-dealer,” according to Marxism, because he is giving people a religious “fix” that numbs them to their oppressed existence.

A prime example of Marxist CT in action is the 1619 Project, which reinterprets American history and society through the lens of protecting racist slavery. CT broke out like a virus in the summer of 2020 in massive attempts to tear down the structures of society: the police, the government, and established religion. These superstructures were all targeted because they were supposedly protecting a substructure of racist oppression.

Power, the Supreme Category

CT is one result of a major shift in philosophy. In pre-modern philosophy, God was the source of goodness, beauty, and truth. Thomas Aquinas wrote that God is ultimately “simple,” so his power is one with his being. God can’t decree that adultery is virtuous, or that 2+2 =5, because this drives a wedge between his being and his power. Because God’s being is the ultimate ground of all truth, he cannot decree, or do, anything that is untrue or unholy.

The major turn in philosophy came in the late medieval and early modern period, with a “voluntaristic” turn—an emphasis on the power of the human will (voluntas = will). In this view, God’s absolute power was divorced from his being. Descartes took this to the extreme and said that 2+2 could equal 5 if God willed it.

Nietzsche took all of this to the logical conclusion: God is dead, and we have killed him. Where did the absolute power go? It came to us! We have what Nietzsche called the “will to power.” No one can tell us who we are. We can decide our own ultimate reality. The “voluntaristic” God has morphed into the all-creating, voluntaristic self. This is clearly seen in Justice Kennedy’s statement in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood that we are all free to give our own answer to the question of the meaning of life and of human existence.

A More Excellent Way

One resource for resisting and responding to Wokeism is Catholic social teaching. Bp. Barron reminds us that, “Each individual person is a subject of infinite dignity—but not the creator of value.” Love should be at the heart of Christian social teaching. Aquinas taught that to love is to will the good of the other. This requires a “keen sense of objective good.”

Additionally, Catholic social teaching does not advocate Marxist antagonism. Instead, it envisions “cooperation.” It sees the Marxist sub/superstructure as inadequate. Rather, society is a rich web of mutual relationships. In this way, Marxism is too simplistic.

For the Christian, justice and love are supreme. Justice is rendering to each his due, and Love is willing the good of the other. These are absolute values, and they are valuable in themselves. Guided by these principles, Christians of all types should be able to work together to unmask the lies of Wokeism and pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in our social and political relationships.

 PhD, teaches and mentors students of all ages at Logos Online School, Kepler Education, the Bible Mesh Institute, and Redemption Seminary. He writes at gregorysoderberg.substack.com and gregorysoderberg.wordpress.com.

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